January 23, 2014


Iran: A Good Deal Now in Danger (Jessica T. Mathews, February 20, 2014, The New York Review of Books)

Iran has a bizarre combination of authoritarian rule and active politics. Thus the Guardian Council, under the direction of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, disqualified 678 of the 686 individuals who applied to run for office. Yet in the campaign, those who did get to run took specific positions and vigorously debated them. The foreign policy debate, televised nationwide, went on for three hours. Voter turnout at 75 percent was almost half again higher than in the United States in 2012.

Rouhani campaigned for greater moderation in government, "an end to extremism," and flexibility in reaching a nuclear accommodation in order to end Iran's international isolation and stalled economy. A cleric and senior member of the ruling inner circle and a personal friend of the Supreme Leader for forty years, he is an advocate for change in both foreign and domestic policy, but very much a member of Iran's political establishment. Speaking fluent English, he served as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator a decade ago.

The mandate of the election was clear--not to dismantle nuclear facilities, end enrichment, or surrender Iran's rights as Iranians see them, but to seek an agreement through flexibility and moderation. The Supreme Leader underlined the point, calling for "heroic flexibility." And while the outcome of the election was greeted with joyous celebrations in the streets, Rouhani has powerful enemies, the Revolutionary Guard among them, who have made no secret of their hope that he will fail. He has to deliver results reasonably soon, or he will be ousted.

His first step was to appoint Iran's most talented diplomat as foreign minister. Javad Zarif impressed the world in his years as Iran's representative to the UN; after living for many years in the US, he understands its politics well. With the Supreme Leader's blessing, Rouhani then transferred the nuclear portfolio from the hard-line Supreme National Council to the Foreign Ministry, which reports to him. He changed the government's tone radically. Though still an enemy, Israel was no longer "the Zionist entity" but the state of Israel. Just after he won the election, Rouhani tweeted a picture of himself visiting an American-supplied field hospital in southeastern Iran some years before.

Initially, these and other moves were dismissed by critics as a "charm offensive." In an unusually intemperate speech to the General Assembly, Netanyahu warned that Rouhani was a "wolf in sheep's clothing" set on duping the international community. But as the weeks passed and Iranian acts added up, most had to conclude that, unlikely as it seemed against the pattern of past decades, this was in fact an Iranian administration with new goals that had, at least for a time, the backing of the Supreme Leader.

Through the fall, negotiations in Geneva accelerated, often stretching around the clock. On November 24 came the announcement of a first-phase, six-month nuclear deal to be followed by a more comprehensive, permanent agreement six months or a year later.

The essential elements of a bargain acceptable to the P5+1 negotiators were well defined in advance. To prevent Iran from once again using the negotiations to buy time to advance its program, Tehran would have to agree to halt production of 20 percent highly enriched uranium. It would have to keep its capacity for enrichment stable by stopping the operation or the installation of additional advanced centrifuges. It would have to halt progress on the reactor under construction at Arak that is designed to produce plutonium, also a weapons fuel. Specifically that reactor could not be fueled or turned on so that, if the agreement were ever violated, it could be bombed without spreading radiation.

The actual agreement goes far beyond this. Most important, and perhaps most unexpected, Iran agreed to eliminate its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium either by diluting it down to low enrichment or converting it to an oxide form that is not adaptable for further enrichment. Netanyahu had famously held up a cartoon poster of a bomb before the General Assembly with a red line drawn across it at the threshold level of 90 percent enriched uranium. The agreement takes Iran's less enriched stockpile to zero.

The terms also provide that Iran can build no additional centrifuges except to replace broken ones. While existing centrifuges may continue to spin, the product must be converted to oxide so that Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium does not grow. The agreement bans the testing or production of fuel and new components for Arak and requires Iran to turn over important design information that will help the IAEA safeguard the reactor there.

To strengthen the assurance that all this will happen, the agreement requires daily access for inspectors as well as downloads from cameras used for surveillance, including at the Fordow underground enrichment plant. To reduce the possibility that Iran could be running covert, hidden fuel cycles, it extends monitoring for the first time to uranium mines and mills and to centrifuge production and assembly facilities. These inspections are unprecedented in both frequency and extent.

In return, the P5+1 agree to lift about $7 billion worth of sanctions, though leaving the most important oil and financial sanctions in place. Further, the US and its allies pledge not to impose any new nuclear-related sanctions while the agreement is in effect.

There is much left to be dealt with in the permanent agreement. In the view of the P5+1 negotiators, Iran must permanently cap enrichment at 5 percent and reduce the size of its stockpile, which holds far more low-enriched uranium than it needs for any foreseeable peaceful purpose. Similarly, the total number of centrifuges needs to be proportional to civilian needs. The Arak reactor must be defanged--most likely converted to a different design. And the final agreement must deal with Parchin and perhaps other facilities where research and development directly related to making weapons are believed to have taken place.

What remains to be done does not diminish the historic dimension of what has been achieved. After more than a decade of failed negotiations and, for the US and Iran, three decades of unproductive silence, diplomacy is working. As of January 20, 2014, the short-term agreement is in full effect. Twenty percent enrichment is suspended. If the agreement is sustained by both sides, Iran's enrichment progress will be halted and in important respects rolled back. The time it would take to break out and dash for a nuclear weapon is lengthened by perhaps two months and the new inspection requirements mean earlier warning of danger and more time to respond. In return, the P5+1 gave remarkably little. Indeed, this deal only becomes attractive for Tehran if it is followed by a permanent agreement that brings major relief from sanctions.

Posted by at January 23, 2014 5:11 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus